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An American Finds Fame, and Lots of Cockroaches, in Hanoi’s Mucky Storm Drains

Jun 07, 2016

Cleanup hobbyist hops into mucky storm drains to retrieve trash

 By JAMES HOOKWAY | Original Source

{James Kendall, an American teacher in Vietnam, began clearing refuse from Hanoi waterways in May and has gathered a following of other cleanup volunteers. PHOTO:JAMES KENDALLL}

HANOI— James Kendall has a dirty way of having of fun that has made him one of Vietnam’s favorite Americans.

Inching his way along a 4-foot-wide storm drain here in the nation’s capital one afternoon last month, the 34-year-old schoolteacher was hoping to map out some choke points caused by trash accumulating in the city’s underground waterways.

“There’s some nasty stuff here,” Mr. Kendall said, his actions captured by a GoPro camera on his chest and a lamp on his head. “There’s some nasty stuff there, too.”


{James Kendall} 

“So, yeah it looks like there’s a lot of stuff to check out this way. Whoa, there’s some nasty stuff,” he said—stuff including mud, plastic bags, bits of trees and possibly worse. “What is that? It’s nasty.”

The first time Mr. Kendall stepped into Hanoi’s canals and floodways to clean up refuse voluntarily earlier in May, he drew a few curious bystanders and got a telling-off from a local government officer.

He kept up his cleanup act and suddenly has become something of a celebrity and a focus for the country’s growing environmental movement after the city’s mayor awarded him a medal.

On May 23, he was on the evening television news, second only to a report on U.S. President Barack Obama lifting a Cold War arms embargo on Vietnam during his state visit.

People Mr. Kendall meets in Hanoi cafes often ask him to pose for photographs.

“It’s really strange getting all this attention,” said Mr. Kendall, who moved to Vietnam three years ago to teach English. “All I wanted to do is just clean up some trash.”


{Garbage floated on Dong Da lake in Hanoi in 2010. PHOTO: NGUYEN HUY KHAM/REUTERS}

Mr. Kendall, from Springfield, Ohio, isn’t sure exactly why he is willing to jump into Hanoi’s canals and drainage systems. Besides the sheer yuck factor, there are the dangers of cuts from obscured debris or even leptospirosis, an infection spread by rats.

One inspiration may have been Ohio’s own history of environmental disasters. Another was the way tons of fish washed up dead along a 130-mile stretch of coast here in Vietnam in April, which prompted Mr. Kendall and many others to wonder how much economic growth the country can absorb before its environment starts feeling even more strain.

Mostly, though, Mr. Kendall said he has come to regard Vietnam as his second home and is tired of Hanoi’s worsening trash problem. “If you want positive results,” he said, “you’ve got to do something positive.”

So one day in early May, equipped with little more than gloves and face masks, Mr. Kendall and a few friends waded into a canal in Hanoi’s gritty Cau Giay district and began clearing garbage by hand. They found branches, carpets and masses of plastic bottles and bags.

Passersby stopped their motor scooters to watch. “They just couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Kendall recalled. “They just stood there and stared, jaws open.”

Others took pictures, which spread on Facebook and other social media. One man walking by, Nguyen Van Quang, 27, leapt into the canal to help.

“I asked myself why Vietnamese are throwing trash in the canal and leaving it for foreigners to clean up,” he recalled, “so I jumped in.”

Another, software developer Nguyen Quoc Trinh, 26, said he found Mr. Kendall’s Facebook page, Keep Hanoi Clean, and joined volunteers from his neighborhood to clean up their community and plant trees the following weekend.

He is working on developing a smartphone app that lets people use GPS and Google Maps to pinpoint problem areas and describe what kind of work needs to be done.

The biggest surprise came when the office of Hanoi’s chairman, or mayor, Nguyen Duc Chung, got in touch with Mr. Kendall to arrange a meeting at Mr. Kendall’s apartment. He brought a medal bearing the city insignia—a rare honor—and pinned it to Mr. Kendall’s blue, short-sleeved shirt before a gaggle of photographers.

“On behalf of Hanoi’s leaders, I’d like to recognize and praise the meaningful and practical work done by you and your friends,” Vietnam’s state-run media reported the mayor as saying.

Not everyone was so impressed. The deputy chairman of the local district council complained to state media that by jumping into the canal, Mr. Kendall had created the impression that his office wasn’t taking pollution problems seriously. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

When Mr. Kendall, who speaks Vietnamese, confronted a man burning trash in the street, the man didn’t take well to the foreigner’s lecturing him and invoked Vietnam’s national hero. “I said, ‘Hey, it’s not OK. Burning this stuff is bad for the environment.’ He was like, ‘Ho Chi Minh number one! Ho Chi Minh number one!’ ”

{Mr. Kendall has gained celebrity in Vietnam for his efforts to clear storm drains and other waterways. PHOTO: JAMES HOOKWAY/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL}

Mr. Kendall is using his summer break from teaching to help build his network, which has over 6,700 Facebook-page members, and to crawl back into storm drains.

“If I find anything I can try giving it a tug and see if I can dislodge it, like flossing teeth,” Mr. Kendall said as he pulled on a pair of thick, rubber waders for his recent May foray into a tunnel that runs under the city and into a canal.

“If we can get the water flowing again, maybe the system can heal itself.”

Looking on, Vu Thi Loan, an inspector from Hanoi’s water department, recognized Mr. Kendall from the television news reports and stopped to watch. At age 49, she said she has been monitoring the city’s drains for 25 years.

“But I’ve never seen anything this,” she said. “I wish there were more people like him.”

The further Mr. Kendall went into the tunnel, the worse it seemed to get. “It feels like I’m walking through clay. Ugh,” he said. “So gross.”

Then he reached a point from which he was all too happy to return. “Whoa, a lot of cockroaches there. I’m getting freaked out by all cockroaches,” he said. “I’ll go back.”

—Vu Trong Khanh in Hanoi contributed to this article.


Write to James Hookway at [email protected]

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